Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Stakic Sentence Appeal Plays on Victims' Nerves

Bosnian Muslims who’ve returned to their former homes say a successful appeal will make their lives unbearable.
By Nerma Jelacic
Survivors of atrocities committed in the Bosnian town of Prijedor are nervously awaiting a decision by the tribunal’s appeal chamber on whether to commute Milomir Stakic’s life sentence for crimes against humanity.



The appeals chamber is due to make its decision soon on the July 31, 2003 verdict, in which the former Prijedor crisis staff chief was found guilty of crimes against humanity - but not of genocide - and given the maximum sentence.



Dr Stakic, a former physician who in 1992 took over as president of the Municipal Assembly of Prijedor, was found guilty of extermination, murder, persecutions and deportations, in relation to his role as the voice of authority in the area.



At an appeals hearing in October last year, Stakic told the court, “I never committed a crime, ordered a crime or justified a single crime either then or now.”



While the defence argued that the sentence was disproportionate to the verdict, the prosecution insisted that he should have been found guilty of genocide.



As both parties wait for the appeals chamber’s verdict, former employees of the tribunal have told IWPR they are concerned that Stakic's sentence will be reduced.



Should this happen, returnees and survivors of Prijedor's notorious detention camps have warned IWPR that their trust in the Hague tribunal would erode and their lives in the municipality be made more difficult.



“It would be unbearable,” Edin Ramulic, a returnee and an activist in a local NGO working on truth and reconciliation in Prijedor area, told IWPR. “We put up so much hope into that sentence, and accepted it even though he was found not guilty on genocide charges.”



“[Tribunal] indictments, rulings and sentences have in effect encouraged return to areas such as Prijedor. They gave us hope. If this is taken away from us then many will pack their bags and leave again.”



The trial chamber said that under Stakic’s rule, more than 1,500 non-Serbs were murdered in and around Prijedor; that rapes, sexual assaults, beating and torture took place regularly; and that a minimum of 20,000 people were deported between August and September 1992.



Stakic was a member of the local crisis staff, a wartime authority, which planned, supervised and oversaw three of the most notorious detention centres in northwest Bosnia – Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm.



But in an interview with IWPR, Stakic's lawyer, Branko Lukic, claimed that his client could not have any command responsibility nor could he be held responsible for what happened in these camps.



“A chief of crisis staff has a completely different role [than that which trial chamber accepted]. He cannot have two missions at the same time,” said Lukic.



The lawyer expressed his continued shock over the judges’ assessment that Stakic was a “co-perpetrator” of the crimes.



The judgement against him says that Stakic and his co-perpetrators “acted in the awareness that crimes would occur”.



“I am emotionally connected to this case,” continued the lawyer, “because it was the most unsuccessful one in my life. He was given the highest sentence and I know he does not deserve it. Even [Radislav] Krstic received 35 years and he was found guilty of genocide.”



The majority of court observers expect that the life sentence may be reduced.



“I’m a bit afraid,” said Isabelle Wesselingh, long time trial observer and author of a book about Prijedor, Stakic and the war, told IWPR. “I think it should stand, because it was a well-balanced decision.”



Questions are now being raised about what crime committed during the 1992-1995 war, if any, deserves a life sentence.



“How many people have to die to merit a life sentence?” asked Nicholas Koumjian, the prosecutor who secured the first ruling.



Koumjian, who has since left tribunal to prosecute at Bosnia's newly formed War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo, told IWPR that the evidence showed and trial chamber accepted that “what happened in Prijedor was a well organised, intentional and unmerciful criminal campaign to ethnically cleanse that territory”.



“The campaign was closely coordinated between the police, military and political leadership. The evidence showed that they all worked together and Stakic as the key political leader, president of the assembly and of the crisis staff and national defence unit was at the centre of that coordinated campaign,” said Koumjian.



He goes on to say that in media interviews which were presented as evidence, Stakic himself had acknowledged the key role he played in the events that took place in Prijedor.



Wesselingh points out that the exact number of people who were killed has yet to be confirmed. “The case concerned so many thousands,” she said, “but they haven’t yet established the full scale of what happened, because many mass graves are still not excavated.”



Koumjian dismisses defence claims that as a civilian Stakic could not have any control over the military campaigns in Prijedor.



“Political leaders will always hide behind excuses that they were not in military chains of command. What we had here was a political campaign carried out by military means, and the sad truth is that it was very successful and that it forever changed the ethnic make up of Prijedor,” he said.



“If playing such a critical role in the death of thousands and in many other crimes does not merit a life sentence, I think it would be very difficult to explain to me or to the victims what does.”



Survivors and returnees are asking the same question.



Nusreta Sivac, a female prisoner of Omarska camp and multiple witness in tribunal related cases, returned to Prijedor in 2001 where she still sees former detention centre officers in the streets and the shops she frequents.



“I did not even know there would be an appeal hearing. It upsets me so much,” she told IWPR. “That sentence was the only legal proof we could take with us when returning to our homes, when facing our neighbours who still deny that such awful crimes happened to us.



“We could always fall back on that ruling and show it to these people and tell them that a court has found those crimes to be true. If the tribunal takes this away from us I don't know what I will do. I will give up.”



Wesselingh, last in Prijedor in December, agrees that the level of denial in Prijedor is very high. “If the sentence is lowered it will be a set back in this very slow process of facing the future,” she said.



Sabahudin Garibovic, representative of Prijedor municipality’s camp inmates association, whose brother was killed in Omarska, confirms those fears.



“One should not even discuss the reduction of sentence let alone do it. Should the sentence be reduced it will definitely affect our citizens here and their trust in the tribunal,” he said.



Fikret Batic, another returnee, whose 33 family members were executed including his wife and eight- and 14-year-old children, is still looking for their remains. He cannot bear to talk about Stakic's sentence appeal. “It is absurd,” he said.



Muharem Murselovic, a returnee who is currently president of the Municipal Council in Prijedor, was ousted from his pre-war political seat when Stakic's Serbian Democratic Party took over the town.



“I knew Stakic. They say he took power without firing a bullet. I was there. It is simply untrue,” he told IWPR



“More than 60 per cent of Prijedor's pre-war citizens were deported or killed. And they are thinking of reducing his sentence? That is preposterous. It will only give a message to the few of us that returned to leave again.”



Nerma Jelacic is director of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN Bosnia and Hercegovina. Mirna Mekic is a journalist based in Sarajevo.